Sophie’s Choice

Our housekeeper just gave me notice. Two months or sooner if we can find a new housekeeper.. and I am seriously bummed (and worried for her – more on that below).

I can almost see all of you rolling your eyes… poor spoiled Natalie lamenting losing her housekeeper. The thing is that I can relatively easily replace somebody who cooks and cleans for us (although it takes a lot of time to teach a new person how we do things and what we like). What is harder to replace is the attachment and human connection that we feel for somebody who has been living with us for the past 7 months. We talk, we have dinner together when my husband travels, our 3-year old runs to jump into her arms when she comes back after her days off. The kids (all of us actually) have been through so many changes since we moved here, that the thought of another big change fills me with dread.

Not that she doesn’t have a great reason: she misses her kids and they need her. She left them with her mom in her hometown, Mompox, which is 18 hours away by bus and boat and came to Bogota in search of work. Many women from smaller towns all across Colombia have to do this and yet, it is still heartbreaking.

I have often wondered how she can take care of our family day in and day out without pining for her own. Of course she does. She just didn’t talk about it, rationalizing that she needed the money to feed them and send them to school, that they are better off with their grandma in a safe, small town. It all seemed to be working until she got a call a couple of days ago saying that her 8 year old daughter, has Hepatitis B. She was frantic.

“Are you sure that it’s Hepatitis B?” I asked.  Hepatitis B is transmitted through bodily fluids – blood transfusions, dirty needles, sex – and is much more serious, potentially fatal. She would be much more likely to have contracted Hepatitis A, which is passed via the oralfecal route (eating food prepared by somebody who has the disease and didn’t wash their hands well after going to the bathroom) and is much less serious. It still makes people sick for months but doesn’t permanently damage the liver or usually lead to complications like other forms of Hepatitis can do.

After hours of phone calls to her family in her hometown, who in turn kept calling the doctor, it turned out that our housekeeper’s daughter did indeed have Hepatitis A. It is still no walk in the park. She will be weak, nauseous and sick as a dog for a couple of months but at least she should recover completely. This disease is easily preventable with a vaccine series but apparently there wasn’t enough vaccine to go around so a few kids split one dosage. Not a good idea.

This all comes to the point that this morning our housekeeper told me that she just can’t do it anymore. She has no idea how she will support her kids in Mompox but she just can’t be away from them. They keep getting sick and she is a basket of nerves. She felt really bad because she had originally made a commitment to us of at least a year and a half and said that she now understood why others in Bogota didn’t want to hire her when they found out she had children back in her hometown. She asked me if life had to be so hard?

What could I, with my charmed life, say to that? Of course we are sad. Of course we will miss her. Of course I am worried about how my kids who have grown quite fond of this woman will handle yet another big change. Of course I don’t want to go through the hassle of finding another housekeeper and training that person. But all of these issues and concerns don’t even get close to what it must be like to have to leave your children so that you can feed them. Or decide that you can’t be away from your children but not know how you will put food on the table or clothes on their back. and there is nowhere to turn for help. Those are real problems… faced by millions of women around the world. I keep trying to think of a way to help. Any ideas?

(For the record, I did suggest that she could bring them here, get a tiny studio nearby, send them to school and continue to work for us. Her sister lives here as does her partner/children’s father. She said that her children’s father didn’t like the idea because life here is so expensive that they can’t earn enough to maintain the family in Bogota. I wound up coaching her abit to help her find her own answers and she seems to want to bring the girls to Bogota. The only future she sees for them in Mompox is to follow in her footsteps and be pregnant by  17 – her words, not mine. I didn’t want to get in the middle of a family squabble but I did put her in touch with some people who can tell her how much a cheap apartment costs and which schools are good, etc. We will see how it all plays out.)

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3 Responses to Sophie’s Choice

  1. Lisa says:

    How big is your house, Natalie, and her living space? Could she bring the kids to Bogota to live with you? I realize it would add chaos to the house, but how amazing would it be for your kids to grow up alongside her kids? Her kids could get their immunizations, eat well, and become healthy. I am surely seeing through an idealized lens, but like you I hate the reality that women the world over have to leave their kids behind to care for someone else’s children or house.

    • Hi Lisa! so good to hear from you and now that you are keeping up with the blog! I do hate the reality of many women also but unfortunately the solution you proposed wouldn’t work. Her room is just big enough for her and her husband lives locally too (renting out a small room that she visits on the weekends). they would want to live all together of course so I am helping her look into options nearby… but it’s expensive.

  2. Lisa says:

    I hope one of the other options works out, Natalie. It’s nice to follow you and your family from afar. Lots of love to all.

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